“He rode over the drawbridge into the great courtyard, and the echo of his horse’s hoof beats was the only sound that greeted him.” From Stories of the Knights of the Round Table, by Henry Gilbert, p. 106.
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He rode over the drawbridge into the great courtyard, and the echo of his horse’s hoof beats was the only sound that greeted him. With a tug of the reigns the horse reared up and whinnied, eyes bulging and nostrils flaring. Faldo scanned the courtyard’s perimeter, shaded by the massive timber balconies above. Matching his movement, the horse turned in a slow, wary circle. Something was wrong.
The last time Faldo had set foot in this courtyard it had been bursting with noise, on the first market day of spring. People from the surrounding towns had flung off the stinking furs of a long, dark winter, scrubbed themselves pink in the brooks and streams, and donned clean linen breaches and tight-laced kirtles. They’d traveled for days, then waited in long queues to gain entry to the massive courtyard. Once inside the near-circular enclosure, goods were arrayed by type, in baskets and barrels, on makeshift tables, and in the backs of wagons. There were spring vegetables and herbs, mounds of cut flowers, wood carvings and ironworks toiled over in the cold months, embroidery, skeins of wool, beeswax candles, pies and cakes, gleaming jars of new honey, and baskets of speckled blue and brown eggs.
Children chased each other between the wagons and stalls, tossing hoops and balls, or clattering together in mock battle with rough wooden swords. Performers were generally relegated to the grounds outside the castle, but the odd juggler or stilt-walker still made his way through the crowd, knowing that folks were more apt to part with their coins before they’d buried them in their pockets than after.
A sudden motion made Faldo spin in his saddle. He squinted, peering into the heaps of discarded wood and moldering bales of hay stacked in the shadow of the far stone wall. A cat, piebald, with one ice-blue eye, sat on an old barrel, twitching its tail seductively. It was thin, half-starved probably, but he recognized it all the same. It was the seer’s cat.
He could picture her now, the old woman with the gnarled fingers full of rings, gold filigree and blood-red rubies stacked next to bands of braided wheatgrass and twine–totemic looking things. He remembered how her eyes, so like those of her cat, had given him such a start in the dim candlelight of her smoke-filled tent. It was just there, he thought, at the edge of the courtyard, that she’d taken his own hand in hers and told him. Told him everything. That this would come to pass. that he would live to see this place hushed, full of ghosts. And now he had.